|Aldo Van Eyck's first playground, Bertelmanplein, constructed in 1947|
by Henry Osman
The Dutch architect Aldo Van Eyck once claimed that if cities are not “meant for children they are not meant for citizens either,” and that “If they are not meant for citizens- ourselves- they are not cities.” For Van Eyck, citizenship was intimately linked to play and how city-dwellers interacted with, and constantly formed, the city around them. This is a radical thought — a citizenship based on social engagement and an ongoing search for joy in life (in the city) rather than a citizenship based on national origin or place of birth. To be a citizen is to imagine, explore, and play. In the lean post-WW2 years, Van Eyck took his theories of play and urban life and made them real, designing over 700 playgrounds across the Netherlands. Less than a hundred of these spaces remain but the impetus behind them and the questions they try to answer are more relevant than ever.
The Netherlands in this era was a country, it may be fair to say, obsessed with play. Figures such as Dutch historian Johans Huizinga and artist Constant Nieuwenhuys and avant-garde movements like CoBrA helped found the field. Huizinga, in his seminal 1938 book Homo Ludens, tried defining play by arguing that:
1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.
2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.
|Van Boetzelaerstraat, 1961|
served as a theater for the city, offering basic structures to free, not chain, children’s imagination. If the dominant logic of modernist urban planning was to remap and recreate the city — bulldozing and destroying organically created neighborhoods — Van Eyck then intended to work within existing structures and place his playgrounds in often-untraditional places.
A classic Van Eyck playground was, at first glance, strikingly utilitarian. He often centered his playgrounds on a simple sand pit and instead of having large colorful jungle gyms he would place a few concrete blocks, serving as stepping or jumping stones, and simple curved climbing frames. These were often asymmetrical compositions and existed within the city. They were not raised, sunken or walled plazas; Van Eyck tried to use pre-existing spaces like an empty lot or a small intersection to integrate his designs into the surrounding community rather than trying to override it. Even his first playground, Bertelmanplein, embodied these principles. While it at first looks like a simple urban plaza, none of the elements are perfectly centered, rather existing in their own tenuous relationships. These playgrounds were sites of creative potential; there were no cartoonish statues or musical steps, just simple structures that children could transform using the power of play and imagination.
Van Eyck argued that his playgrounds produced space, predicting Lefbevre’s The Production of Space decades before it was written. Van Eyck theorized argued that “whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion.” While Lefbevre switched the definitions of space and place, the similarity of their thoughts is clear. Van Eyck’s playgrounds sought, to follow his definition, to create places rather than simple spaces and prioritized social value over physical structures. He was also heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Buber, who famously explored the relationship between “I and thou” (Ich-du). Buber focused on these small, almost unobservable dialogues and mutual exchanged between strangers. Van Eyck integrated Buber’s concept of “ich-du” in his playgrounds, trying to create places of encounter that used play to bridge “I” and “thou.” His playgrounds can be read as engines of radical encounters, creating new places, occasions, and citizenships through the simple act of playing.
|Final Model for Riverside Park Playground, 1965|
|Parque Experimental El Eco, APRDELESP|
Even if these playgrounds, playscapes and parks use play to create new sets of social relationships and, potentially, to democratize the city and its cultural institutions, they are not all equally
|Parque Experimental El Eco, APRDELESP|
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Henry Osman is an independent curator and writer based between New York and Mexico City. He debut book, Privacidad Total/Total Privacy, was published in February with Gato Negro Ediciones. He is an editor at Drippy Mag and he has recently curated shows at Preteen Gallery (Mexico City) and Free Paarking (St Louis).